Lovins: Hydrogen Era is Just Around the Corner

Hypercar projected to be able to travel on the same amount of energy that today runs an automobile's air conditioner.

Published: 08-Aug-2003

N class=body>If you’ve bought an electric-gas engine hybrid car or are preparing to, don’t get too attached. Technology might pass them by as soon as seven years from now.

Energy guru Amory Lovins told an audience of about 150 people at the Given Institute in Aspen last night that hydrogen-fuel, super-efficient vehicles could be in mass production at an affordable price by the end of the decade.

Current hybrids like the Toyota Prius are twice as efficient as the average standard vehicle, he noted. Vehicles using direct hydrogen fuel cells will be three times as efficient as average vehicles of today. And Lovins predicted they will be available at a comparable price as standard vehicles by 2010.

Hydrogen-based vehicles will become commonplace just as rapidly as Internet usage went from the domain of computer geeks to a standard household amenity, according to the scenario portrayed by Lovins, the co-founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute.

In a segment of his presentation called “Ready or Not, Here it Comes,” Lovins noted that the chairs of eight major oil and car companies have said the world is nearing the end of the petroleum age and entering the hydrogen era.

RMI is doing what it can to accelerate the revolution. It spun off a company called Hypercar in 1999 after nine years of nurturing. Hypercar is working on a prototype vehicle, which Lovins dubbed an “urban assault vehicle,” that he clearly believes will be part of the next generation of super-efficient cars.

That vehicle will be capable of getting the equivalent of 99 mpg by traveling 330 miles on its load of 7.5 pounds of hydrogen. The car will be able to cruise at 55 mph on the same energy required just to operate the air conditioning of a normal vehicle. Yet the vehicle will also be able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in a respectable 8.2 seconds.

A key to the car’s success, along with the direct hydrogen fuel cell, is the carbon-fiber material that makes the body light but also provides structural stiffness. At 1,889 pounds, it would be 47 percent of the mass of a Lexus RX300.

The hydrogen era will be ushered in by China, which Lovins explained is investing heavily in hydrogen direct fuel cells to power vehicles as well as utility systems in buildings due to concerns over air quality and health. The United States is diving into the hydrogen economy because of environmental and safety concerns, he said.

A scenario envisioned by Shell shows world oil use stagnating until 2020 then falling.

Despite the momentum, there are a lot of myths about hydrogen that Lovins and RMI are on a mission to dispel. The biggest myths are that hydrogen is unsafe, too expensive to produce and not beneficial enough to the environment.

While showing a slide of the Hindenburg zeppelin exploding in 1937, Lovins said that hydrogen’s hazards are generally more easily managed than other hydrocarbon fuels. He said carbon-fiber tanks have been invented that have been unscathed in crashes that flattened steel cars and shred regular gasoline tanks.

When it comes to production, U.S. refineries are already making enough hydrogen to offset one-quarter of the country’s gas use. Lovins made the case that the use of fossil fuels to produce hydrogen is a worthwhile and cost-effective investment, as long as it is done “properly.”

Marty Picket, executive director of RMI, told the audience that there’s a popular joke at the nonprofit organization that listening to Lovins’ presentations is like trying to drink from a fire hose. But RMI has tried to tackle that by running a summer 2003 newsletter that features a “hydrogen primer.” It makes four key points about hydrogen and tackles the prevalent myths.

The newsletter can be accessed online at www.rmi.org.

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